In the interest of full disclosure, you should know that as this post pops into your inbox, I am on an island in northern Ontario, where I do not have internet access. I wrote this post a week ago, before I left the world of easy electronic communication for a few days of quiet relaxation. In real time, I, like you, know the outcome of the election, but when I wrote this, that outcome was anything but certain.
The polls were showing an unprecedented surge in popularity for the NDP, significant losses for the front-running PCs and the possible electoral disappearance of the Liberals. But, even as I wanted to breathe a little easier every time I read a new poll, I knew I should not let myself get overly hopeful because of Ontario’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) election system.
What is FPTP?
Under an FPTP electoral system, the person with the most votes wins the seat in their riding, and the party with the most ridings forms the government. For an individual candidate to win, they must get more votes than any other candidate, but they do not need a majority of votes. In other words, someone can be elected even if the majority of voters did not select for them, as long as they have more votes than any one other candidate.
Likewise at the provincial or federal levels, a party can form the government even if it has received fewer votes across the country/province than other parties.
This system has been under heavy criticism for decades, because it means governments can be formed that do not have the support of the majority of the voting population.
But what else is there?
There are many options other than FPTP, only two of which I am going to describe.
Proportional representation (PR) means that the share of each party’s representation in the legislature/parliament is proportional to its share of the votes cast across the province/country. In this system, people vote for a political party not for an individual candidate. The percentage of votes that each party gets across the province/country translates into the percentage of seats that party has. The seats are filled by representatives selected by each party.
Mixed member proportional representation(MMPR) is a hybrid between PR and FPTP. Under this system, voters get two votes: one is for a local candidate and one is for a party. Votes for candidates are tallied locally. Whichever candidate gets the most votes gets a seat in the legislature/parliament. Top-up seats are filled based on the percentage of the provincially/nationally tallied votes for each party.
Failed past attempts
There have been a number of moves to reform the electoral process in Canada in the past. British Columbia has held two referendums about electoral reform – one in 2005 and one in 2009 – neither of which resulted in change. The present NDP government has promised another referendum, likely proposing a PR system, in the fall.
Ontario’s Liberal government, under Premier Dalton McGuinty, formed a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in 2005. Its report recommended that a referendum be held proposing a change to the MMPR system. The referendum was held in 2007, and the proposition was defeated, with only 37% of voters supporting it.
The referendum came under intense criticism for failing to be preceded by adequate education to ensure voters understood the two electoral systems properly and for the manner in which the question was worded.
Justin Trudeau promised electoral reform during his 2015 election campaign. He insisted that election would be the last held using the FPTP system. Soon after being elected, he struck a parliamentary committee to hear from voters, conduct research and propose a way forward. In 2017, he reneged on this commitment and removed electoral reform from his list of initiatives.
Electoral reform has not been a headline issue in Ontario’s 2018 provincial election campaign, but it should have been. Time is long past for an overhaul of our electoral system and for FPTP to be replaced with something more democratic and representative.
We should all make a commitment now that, we will advocate with our MPPs, whatever party they represent, as well as the provincial government, whether majority or minority, for a properly funded public education campaign about electoral reform followed by a binding referendum that offers voters real choices.